Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Turkey Day

Thanksgiving, as much as any truly American celebration, is wrapped tightly in the mythology of God, flag and our superior goodness as a people.

The more I learn about the mythical Pilgrims, the less I am to want to laud the day with the significance that many do. The idea that this special group of God-fearing English settlers got together to share their bounty with the local savages that they were helping to socialize might be comforting for some, but seems rather condescending and downright racist to me.

Here is just a bit of background to ponder while settling down for that turkey and gravy:

Despite the propagation of the Thanksgiving story in books and encyclopedias, some historians believe a good deal of Pilgrim lore is just plain false. It's generally agreed that sometime in early October, not late November, fifty or so Pilgrims held a three-day harvest bash. Beyond that, there is little evidence to authenticate the stories. Writers and painters have tended to moralize and romanticize the story, embellishing it with colorful anecdotes and side stepping the grimmer details.

According to William B. Newell, a-Penobscot Indian and former chairman of the anthropology department at the University of Connecticut, the first official Thanksgiving Day Commemorated the massacre of 700 Indian men, women and children during one of their religious ceremonies. The Indians were celebrating their annual green corn dance--Thanksgiving Day to them--in a meeting house when they were attacked by English and Dutch settlers. The Indians were ordered from the building, and shot down as they came forth. Those who were left inside died in the building, which was set on fire. Another such "thanksgiving" day was proclaimed by Gov. Kieft in February 1644.

Whether they were celebrating Indian deaths or truly giving thanks for a good harvest, the Pilgrims consumed a good deal of home brew. Each Pilgrim drank at least a half gallon of ale a day. According to one account, when Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag tribe first visited the Plymouth colony, he was given a pot of brandy. It is said to have "made him sweat all the time after."

We know the first Thanksgiving took place in 1621, but the year the feast went national is anyone's guess. Some scholars say Thanksgiving became a formal holiday in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it in response to a campaign by a magazine editor named Sara Joseph Hale, the author of "Mary Had A Little Lamb." Others say it was President George Washington who proclaimed it a holiday in 1789.
(This information was reprinted from The Vegetarian Times, 1982)

What does all this mean? I for one am going to eat my turkey, celebrate the opportunity to see my son (home from college) and other family members--Americans don't take enough time to get together with one another--as well as enjoy a day when most business shuts down. I'll also keep in mind that the mythology that I was taught in school was a lie and give thanks that I'm aware that much of what passes for the truth is worthy of skeptical consideration.

The older I get, the more difficult I find it to just go along with many of the "holidays" that we celebrate. What I've been doing is finding new ways to imbue these days with some sense of reality, while not totally shunning participation in the activities. I enjoy the festive nature of many of these celebrations, but often despise the superficial meaning that many try to maintain in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Having said all of this, I still take the time to wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving, whatever that means to you and yours.

No comments: